Country diary: this is the perfect place to feel the force of spring

Cressbrook Dale, Derbyshire: A riot of green meshes with songs of the whole wood: wind, rain, wren, robin, raven

This reserve is one of our favourite walks, and part of the joy of it is the contrast between the upper and lower portions. The first is all open to the sky and steep-sided, ribbed with limestone and softened with flowers – cowslips and early purple orchids now, but rockrose, thyme or bloody cranesbill come the summer.

The lower section couldn’t offer a greater shift in mood, with its deep-wood entanglements, where the tree trunks and branches are lagged with thick mosses and ferns. All of it is immersed in an astonishing green, but not one startling spring colour, rather a gradient of shades whose complexity is increased with light and shadow.

Early purple orchids in Cressbrook Dale.
Early purple orchids in Cressbrook Dale. Photograph: Mark Cocker

There’s the softest lime of beeches just after bud-burst. Across the floor are the lettuce-green leaves of ramsons, whose kitchen odour is as dense as the foliage. Each plant bends a broad head to mesh with its neighbours and, running up the slopes and across the hollows, the wild-garlic carpet has the uneven contour of wind-rocked water.

Infused with this great photosynthetic symphony is the song of the whole wood: wind, rain, wren, robin, thrush, the year’s first redstarts and, from high above, launched from sheer cliffs of limestone at the rim, the throat-scratching coughs of ravens.

The notes come clattering down, but we can barely catch a glimpse of their owners through the canopy. Finally we arrive at a point on the walk, before the road, where culture and nature are most completely entwined. Here, at a spot called Ravensdale Cottages, you can look up and see the crags called Ravencliffe Cave.

And there are the birds themselves. One thing I cherish is the idea that, following a century and half’s absence from this county on account of our intolerance, ravens returned first to this place. Now they’re home. Cressbrook is the perfect place to feel the force of spring, to know the power of May. But we both agreed: what we felt most was a deep sense of thanksgiving for those unnamed women and men of the Nature Conservancy who claimed this dale as important and secured it for us all.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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